September 21, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
He looked cool as can be during the final stretches, easy like Sunday morning, chilling and watching some volleyball … but that’s Coach Mac. His team was knee deep in a desperate brawl with state-ranked P-SJ-A at home Tuesday and was in danger of falling to its third loss of the district season. But Raul McCallum held the reins, being patient with his Lady Cougars as they dug themselves out of an enormous 0-2 hole.
And then at the right moment, as his kids were starting to believe it was going to happen, this mighty comeback in a town and season of comebacks, he challenged them in the huddle.
“How bad do we want it!” he hollered, and loudly, which is usually not really his way.
Winning the speed bonus was the prophetess, hard-nosed libero Gabby Rodriguez.
“Really BAD!!!” she screamed within a nanosecond, and out she and her teammates went, to complete a stunning 5-set rallying victory against a Lady Bear team that began the day 6-0 in 31-6A and had entered the state rankings this week; and their fans well, they frankly outnumbered and outhollered the Lady Coog rooters during the first stages of the night. Until they left, quickly and quietly, grumbling under their breath about this and that and I don’t know what. Ha.
Another tremendous night of action, and this time, North came out on top. The Lady Coogs have been on the receiving end of some 5-set defeats in ‘21, but they’ve recorded a few themselves. Now, with the season on the line, they came through, roaring from way back to get clutch performances from the stars and some vital contributions from the supporting cast. In the latter moments of the thriller, senior Arianna Gonzalez was fantastic, setting with accuracy, serving with malevolent intent, and doing what seniors do when the chips are down.
“We didn’t focus that well at the start,” said Gonzalez, whose team dropped the first two sets, 32-30 and 25-21, only to rise phoenix-like for the crazy W. “We weren’t communicating either, but you know, that’s volleyball. It‘s always streaky: the ball goes up and someone is going to score, and it just started to be us. We responded when coach was asking us if we wanted it, everyone did their part, played their role, and it worked out in the end.”
Way before the end, though, it didn’t look very promising as North blew a 24-21 lead in the first set, only to bounce back and battle to the close loss. One can count on a single hand the times a set has gone past 30 points in more than 30 seasons of watching the nets. Set two was close again but P-SJ-A was exquisite, not letting the ball hit, using speed and precision to stymie every run the Lady Coogs started to get on. Their fans were chanting like banshees and it began to sink in that this Tri-Cities team, not counted on as a frontrunner heading into the season, was for real.
Honestly though, the Osos had every right to be crowing after two sets Tuesday as they were nearly flawless in execution, their kids hitting, ranging, digging like interchangeable parts in a well-oiled machine. And it was execution that had done the Lady Coogs dirty in their last loss, to EHS Saturday.
“We knew what they were going to try and do,” said McCallum, speaking of the disappointing loss to the Lady Bobcats. “But we didn’t execute, and they did. Really, we just didn’t show up, we came out flat, and they rolled on us. We were frustrated about it, for sure.”
McCallum spoke of the EHS loss, No. 2 on the league slate, before probably the biggest game of the year for North. He knows that the top four teams, the aforementioned pair and Vela, plus his own, are equally dangerous and can beat each other at any time.
“There’s still a chance for us and the girls know that,” he promised. “We have to get on a winning streak, we have to stop overthinking stuff. They just need to come out and play tonight.”
Though they had enjoyed their moments during the first two sets, riding the grit and energy of libero Gabby Rodriguez, the North hitters were initially flummoxed by the size and athleticism of the opponent; everything they did was countered by the Lady Bears.
In that first set, Mac’s band held the lead until the end, getting an ace from Gonzalez and then one from Etzel Ramirez. Rodriguez, too, landed some vicious sliders from the service line and when Ramirez yanked one hard to the left corner, it was 15-12, home side. The Lady Bears caught up at 18s each and ties at 19 and 20 ensued. Maya Espinoza produced a huge block against the tall, lanky Lady Bears, followed by a kill from Ramirez and a leaping block from Kaylee O’Bryan that scored a point for that 24-21 advantage.
Here though the Lady Coogs slipped up, letting Pharr back in, ushering in a back-and-forth array of plays that stretched the set far into overtime. Ramirez’ tip was good for a 26-26 tie and she again scored – this time with a boomer of a kill – to make it 28-28. The Lady Bears kept on cranking but Jade Guerra came up with a slap to the right side for yet another deadlock, at 29. The visitor pulled it out with some deft backline work, 32-30, and each team retired to the bench to grab some water and breath, after an outstanding first offering.
In the second go-around, it was P-SJ-A assuming the lead on a consistent basis, though North crept to within 2 late, at 21-19. Alexis Espinoza was sharp at cords in and Stephany Kotzur turned in some spirited hustling plays. Having been held in check so far, the senior O’Bryan got it going with a big kill and a putdown to get her club close; her strong bomb to the corner made it that 21-19 spread mentioned earlier but the gas was out, the Lady Bears outplaying the Lady Coogs to a 25-21 final count.
Before the first serve, McCallum had presaged what Gonzalez would later reiterate, which was that volleyball is a game of runs.
“We just need to get the big play at the right time, because that can change the momentum,” he surmised. “What I want is for us to play the game, instead of playing not to lose, or be timid … just come out and make it happen when we need to.”
Through two sets, North had done that well enough, but the Lady Bears had been just a little bit cleaner in the key junctures. That was about to change.
NOW OR NEVER
Facing elimination, North started with force as Abriana Cubriel provided a tip at the twines and Ramirez, who went through some travails in this one – Pharr had definitely game-planned for the dangerous newcomer and kept her at bay for periods of time – launched one for a point. Then she showed her versatility by racing to the net to save a wayward ball, sending it over and somehow avoiding the dreaded line violation. Low key awesome moment for her.
Another fine sequence came from Guerra, who hit the deck to save one and got back up to aid a winner at the net, giving North a 9-8 lead.
With O’Bryan heating up, the Lady Bears rallied with some terrific libero play from Serenity Lopez (also, lovely name), but it was just back and forth again, each team straining against the pressure and seeking to win the day. North came in with a pair of losses, and Vela had two, EHS one. A Lady Bear victory would give them a real leg up, title-wise.
North led 16-14 when O’Bryan smashed through block, and she shook her head vigorously after the point as if to say, no, no, no: not in our house! Later, Maya Espinoza connected off a Kotzur feed and Guerra made a sure block, 21-19, Lady Coogs. They had to finish, this was it … or, that would be that.
Thankfully, Ramirez delivered an ace, the Lady Bears suffered through some ill-timed errors, and North survived, 25-22, to force more sports.
O’Bryan, who leads by word and deed, said that in the early going, the Lady Bears were tough to handle.
“They did play very well the first two sets,” she admitted. “But somehow we just started coming back. I think we started to play every play like the season was on the line, our intensity picked up. How bad do we want it, that was what we were saying, what coach was saying, and we just needed a push to get us going. We had been frustrated at first, they just wouldn’t let our shots hit the floor!”
Came the fourth set, North feeling renewed intensity and commitment, P-SJ-A starting to wobble. The set was once again a real dogfight, the Espinozas doing excellent work up front while the Lady Coogs – as Gonzalez noted – were talking, moving and meshing with skill and finesse. It was Gonzalez who surprised the enemy with a clever tip over on the second hit, eschewing a potential pass and scoring a winner herself for a 15-10 lead. Earlier, the dogged Rodriguez, face full of fire, had served up several winners from the line; she was everywhere Tuesday, diving, running and not worrying an iota about pain from the hardwood. Superb display of desire.
Looking good, and yet the foe had not gotten into the ranking headlines on sheer luck or artifice. This team was and is good, showing it now by erupting for seven straight points to grab a 17-15 advantage. A couple of poor serves from North (and there not many Tuesday) gave the maroon-clads a lead of 21-18, but then the Lady Coogs stood up to be counted, saving the season with a flourish. Outscoring P-SJ-A 7-1 to the tape, North got an ace from Kotzur and scores from O’Bryan (kill) and Maya Espinoza (push).
Shayla Gaytan wrapped it up from service as down the stretch, McCallum’s kids took it to the Lady Bears. As he had wanted, they were playing hard and playing well, not in their heads at all. And Pharr was at this point plenty worried, illustrated by unforced errors committed down the stretch.
“We had beaten Mission Vets in five earlier in the season,” said McCallum, who told his girls before the game to perform the way they had in topping that perennial power. “They made some errors in that game, Vets did, but we also worked really hard, and I think our aggressive play caused some of their mistakes.”
This was what sealed the fourth set Tuesday, North on the front foot, Pharr beginning to ponder. The body language had changed as well; earlier in the night, North gals seemed dejected when they made a mistake. But as they grew into the game, started to feel confidence, it was the enemy who faltered and started to tilt mental.
Now even the noise level evened out as McCallum exhorted his girls in the huddle and the Lady Bear supporters seemed quieter. With a quick 1-2, the Lady Coogs struck with blows, running to 4-0 lead with a deep kill from the leader O’Bryan, a big hit from Cubriel, and another winner from O’Bryan. Pharr rallied but up stepped Ramirez with a mammoth shot, followed by twin Lady Bear miscues for an 8-4 lead. Gonzalez was sweet with a push for point, Ramirez owned it with a killer ace, and Cubriel again made the grade in a key sequence for a 13-5 lead.
It ended 15-7, North having done what so many teams seem to be doing these days: coming from nowhere to salvage a memorable victory with marvelous teamwork and the ability to stare trouble in the face with courage and resolve.
After the glorious comeback, the Lady Coogs were ecstatic and perhaps slightly relieved. They had to have this one to stay in the race for No. 1, and now the Lady Bears have to gut up against a salty EHS contingent Saturday. Though the ancient frenemy Lady Bobcats did dispatch North last week, the Lady Coogs know that one way or the other, one of those two combatants will be handed a second loss on the weekend. And that’s cool.
“The district has been this way since I started four years ago,” McCallum said. “Very evenly matched teams, the top three or four, there’s not that much separating them, and it comes down to who wants it the most and who executes when they have to.”
While she was tucking her gear away, the leaper O’Bryan discussed the wild nature of the race so far.
“I don’t remember being in so many games that go the distance, five sets,” she smiled, shaking her head wearily. “And just think, we’re not even halfway done yet with the season!”